July 17, 2006

Clunky or subtle?

In the New York Times Book Review yesterday, Brad Leithauser reviews Seamus Heaney's latest book of poetry, District and Circle, using Heaney's "rough-hewn, hand-honed" rhyming practices as a starting-off point.  Leithauser characterizes these rhymes as "dissonances", "jagged, irregular pairings", harmonies that chime "clunkily" rather than "cleanly" and "have grown harsher over time".  But he's not slamming Heaney's poetry, only noting that by such touches "a poet fabricates an individual, distinguishing music"; Heaney's half rhymes produce, for Leithauser, a tough, even raw, music.  My own view of off rhymes (first articulated in 1976) is that they can show great artistry and subtlety.  I don't think that on their own they strike listeners as "dissonant" -- often, quite the opposite.   The effect they convey depends on what other poetic devices they're combined with.

Leithauser's commentary:

I sometimes think there's no more reliable way of initially entering a poet's private domain than by examining what he or she rhymes with what. Certainly, the abbreviated signature of a good many poets could be read by assembling a sample list of the end-words of their lines. George Herbert, Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, James Merrill -- in many cases a savvy reader could, with all the quiet exultation of a code-breaking cryptographer, identify the author purely through paired rhyme-words, independent of what the poem was actually about.

Add to that company the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate of 1995, whose rhymes are rough-hewn, hand-honed. Dungarees and rosaries? Whops and footsteps? Joys and tallboy? We're in Heaney country. His dissonances aren't for every poet; you might even say they're not for the younger Heaney, whose harmonies have grown harsher over time. W. H. Auden once promised his readers he'd never again rhyme an "s" sound and a "z" sound, however concordant they might look on the page (dose, rose). Similarly, late in life, Elizabeth Bishop explained to her students that although she'd once rhymed plural and singular (chests, rest), she planned never to do so again. You'll find both sorts of rhymes, as well as various jagged, irregular pairings less easy to characterize, in Heaney's new collection, "District and Circle."

What does it matter? Why should we care whether two words chime cleanly or clunkily? The issue can seem picayune -- until you recognize that it's through just such tiny touches, such minimal modifications of sound, that a poet fabricates an individual, distinguishing music.

As it happens, those two sorts of rhymes are the ones I focus on in my 1976 paper on half rhymes in rock music ("Well this rock and roll has got to stop.  Junior's head is hard as a rock." in Chicago Linguistic Society 12.676-97).  In the first, "feature rhyme", segments that are not identical are treated as matching for purposes of rhyme; the segments in question can be vowels (hell ~ will) or consonants (dose ~ rose, stop ~ rock).  In the second, "subsequence rhyme", a truncated consonant cluster counts as matching the full cluster (pen ~ mend, rest ~ chests). 

A crucial fact is that almost all the half rhymes in my data were simple instances of one or the other of these types, and that certain matches were hugely more frequent than others, to the extent that half-rhyme matching can be taken as indicating SIMILARITY IN SOUND, an idea that has been pursued by later researchers (Donca Steriade in particular), examining a wide variety of data, from many languages, and from both "art" poetry and "popular" poetry (Japanese rap lyrics, for example).  There are other indirect reflections of similarity in sound -- the sounds involved in phonologically based slips of the tongue, those that are confused in mishearings, and those that match in "imperfect puns" -- but it now seems very clear that the practice of poets who use half rhymes is not a matter of failing to reach some target of "perfect rhyme" (as would be suggested by this terminology) but rather as aiming for a rather different target, that of word parts that "sound alike", without necessarily being identical.

It looks like Leithauser is judging Heaney's rhymes as crude because he thinks Heaney is choosing not to pick full rhymes and is settling (almost surely deliberately) for second-best.  I'm sure that's not what's going on in the great lyrics of John Lennon and Bob Dylan, which are heavy with half rhymes, and I suspect that's not what's going on with Heaney's poems either (though I haven't read the newest ones yet).  In any case, if Leithauser thinks half rhymes intrinsically convey some kind of artless rawness, he's just wrong.  Maybe he should brush up on his Hopkins and his Yeats.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 17, 2006 03:44 PM